The track fell silent as a group of GM’s finest engineers took to the starting line. In between nervous looks, the crew checked over the car one last time before giving the signal to fire it up. The door of the Camaro slammed shut, the whine of the fuel pump the only noise now, when suddenly the starter began to crank over. To my right was the official Chevrolet Performance media team; to my left a group of hardcore GM engineers whom had over 5-years invested into this top-secret project. Suddenly, the gorgeous COPO Camaro roared to life, breathing fire out of its open exhaust, the rumble that the entire team was looking for. Now, the pace started to quicken. Each crewmember took to their spot, each tasked with watching a specific system on the Camaro. Through the water box she came, a quick blip of the throttle to wet the tires, a squeeze of the brakes to set it up, and plumes of tire smoke to heat the 9-inch wide hides. Out of the burnout box and into the beams, yellow yellow, onto the transbrake, and 1.40-seconds later, the COPO Camaro was on its way down track. In just 9.69-seconds it was all over. Five grueling years worth of blood, sweat, internal politics, tears, heartache, joy, and plain old hard work culminating in a 140-mph blast down thirteen hundred and twenty feet worth of asphalt. What we had just witnessed wasn’t only a track pass; it was history in the making.
To understand the COPO Camaro’s importance, one must first understand where this concept came from and to do that, we’ve got to turn back the clocks to 1968, the second year of the Camaro, which just like today was an all-new hot selling muscle car that enthusiasts loved. Drag racing was huge and class racing was the only way prove who was the king of the muscle cars. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the rules of yesteryear mandated that “stock” cars had to be available to the public, in units of 50 or more, direct from the factory. Ford produced the Mustang with a 428 Cobra Jet engine, Chrysler built Hemi powered ‘Cudas and Darts and even AMX threw a big cube engine in to the mix. General Motors however, had nothing, which meant GM racers and fans alike were out of luck as far as class racing was concerned.
Well, almost out of luck. You see, in 1968 there existed an interesting bit of paperwork, known as the Central Office Production Order (COPO), which was usually reserved for fleet services that allowed GM plants to produce special run vehicles without major corporate interference. While this process was normally reserved for police cars, fleet trucks or other special runs and executed mainly for mundane purposes, it was also known to a man named Fred Gibb, who was a diehard GM drag racer, dealer, and well connected friend of certain key players within General Motors upper management. With a little convincing and back office scheming, Fred was able to create COPO 9560, which was a Central Office Production Order run that contained a special order for 50 brand new ZL1 Camaros that were to be outfitted with the 430-hp aluminum ZL1 engine, borrowed from the Corvette, along with a special 4.10:1 equipped rear end and either a TH400 or Muncie 4-speed transmission. Because they were going to semi-officially build 50 of these at the factory, a new class racer was born and the COPO 9560 Camaro was instantly a crowd and racer favorite at the drag strip. In AHRA trim, Fred Gibb and partner Dick Harrell went out and ran hard, clocking a best time of 10.29 at 132mph. The COPO Camaro was real, fast, and awesome, which meant GM was back in the game and gunning for the top spot at every race it unofficially entered. Eventually other dealers heard of this program and out of the same racing spirit that built the COPO 9560 came the COPO 9561 production order, which offered a smaller engine (among other things) at a much more affordable price. While much cheaper and more popular, it was the COPO 9560 ZL1 that held the top spot, with an eventual 69 units being built before the program was put on indefinite hold.
43-years later, we’re here, looking at a spec sheet for PN 20129562 (see what they did there?), which is billed as a factory built COPO Camaro race car built “to survive the rigors of the top classes in NHRA Stock Eliminator.” Using the same Central Office Production Order technique as the original cars, the 2012 COPO Camaro holds true to all of the same ideology as those monsters, although we’re telling you now that this is much more car, and much more Camaro, than the COPOs of yesteryear. A quick look at the specs tells it all: a 2.9-liter supercharged 327 cubic-inch LSX or a naturally aspirated 7.0-liter race engine (there is also a 4.0-liter supercharged 327 for A/SS class racing in the works), a custom designed solid axle rear suspension built around a Strange Engineering S-9 rear end stuffed with 4.10:1 rear gears, and the choice of either a Powerglide 2-speed automatic, a “to be determined” 3-speed or a 5-speed manual transmission. For the money, you get a full-on race ready fuel system from Aeromotive, a complete interior with an NHRA-certified chrome-moly roll cage and lightweight suspension components matched with race specific wheels, tires and brakes. A line-lock comes as standard equipment, as does the custom high-rise cowl induction hood and the NHRA mandated engine cutoff switch.
This is a race car, through and through, and it is being built by Chevrolet Performance specifically to compete in NHRA Stock Eliminator competition. That means you don’t get a VIN, you can’t drive it on the street, and you have to sign a contract with General Motors that states as much. Unlike those early COPO Camaros this isn’t some sort of back door deal, it’s the real thing and it’s taken 5-years worth of hard work and dedication to get it to this point. Now, here’s the part you probably haven’t heard yet… this isn’t a concept anymore. This is a real COPO Camaro and by the time you read this, it should be entering production. We’ve been up close and personal with the machine, seen it run and watched the team at GM and Chevrolet Performance tweak it to perfection. Word on the street (our street that is) is that customers will be racing these Camaros by the summer of 2012 and, per NHRA rules, all of the awesome parts (solid axle conversion, race engines, etc.) will have to be available from Chevrolet Performance, which means you can get in on the action without having to be one of the lucky 69 who got in early enough to be a part of this limited edition first run. However, even if you’re never going to own one of these Camaros, or even a piece of one, isn’t it good to know that all-out performance is still alive and well within the halls of General Motors? It simply doesn’t get any better than this, a factory built Camaro race car capable of going out and engaging in head to head battle with the Ford and Mopar racers. Of course, we wish them the best of luck, since it seems like all other racers will simply be racing for second place once king COPO hits the track…
In addition to the exclusive track testing that Camaro Now was lucky enough to be apart of, we were also able to secure some time with Jamie Meyer, the Performance Marketing Manager of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports at Chevrolet Performance, who was able to speak with us in depth about the 2012 COPO Camaro project. From all of us here at Camaro Now, we want to thank the entire COPO team for all of their hard work and dedication to this project. Without them, we simply wouldn’t have been able to do any of this.
Camaro Now: While the original ’69 COPO Camaros were obviously a “backdoor” secret, the new 2012 COPO certainly comes as no surprise to the upper management at General Motors. How accepting was the top GM brass of this idea?
Jamie Meyer, Chevrolet Performance: Yes, the originals flew under the radar a little bit, but this time around the COPO Camaro has been blessed by Mark Reuss and Tom Stephens from the very beginning. There have been several attempts at this program, and those of us who have been working on this project are thrilled to see it come so far. Another factor was to have Jim Campbell, our US Vice President of Performance Vehicles & Motorsports, put his stamp of approval on the program.
CN: Someone probably had to stick his or her neck on the line for this project. Can you tell us more about the team behind the COPO build?
JM: I will be happy to share that information when these cars go into production. There has been a small core team that has kept the concept of a Camaro in NHRA Stock working through the system. Once that team got approval to move forward, there has been an influx of support from several areas of the company; the Oshawa plant and the Wixom GM Performance Build Center would be chief amongst these.
CN: Speaking of secrets, can you describe what it was like for that team to finally see the COPO concept roll out of that giant crate during its debut at the ’11 SEMA show?
It was an extremely gratifying moment. For many of us, this had been a five-year effort that was finally taking form. The scary part about SEMA was that since the car was labeled “concept,” with no formal announcement of production, we knew we would get questioned about the intent of the program. As we expected, there was an overwhelming amount of support from the drag racing and Camaro enthusiast communities to bring the car to market.
CN: PN 20129562 was a nice touch, honoring the COPO 9560 and COPO 9561 options of the past. Does the actual Central Office Production Order still exist or is the COPO name more heritage than an actual back office function?
JM: Yes, COPO exists. This program was more than just a drag racing Camaro. We had to reestablish internal systems, activate the Chevrolet dealer network, and invoke the ghosts of our performance predecessors to make this a live program. One more important point here, when this car goes to production, it will exist as a Chevrolet Performance part number. It will have no VIN. It will not be streetable. You will not be able to register it for street use. The new owner will sign a contract with General Motors (just like they do today with our body-in-white Camaro program) to this effect.
CN: Not that anyone is worried about the Ford camp, but how did the production and sale of the Cobra Jet affect the COPO Camaro program?
JM: What’s a Cobra Jet? Seriously, the NHRA drag racing community, who has been racing Chevrolet products for decades, came to us with an impassioned request to build a new car. The COPO Camaro exists because our customers demanded it. It’s as simple as this.
CN: How much interaction with the NHRA has the COPO team had up to this point? Obviously the chassis is legal but has the NHRA or Chevrolet Performance talked about classes or HP:Weight ratings yet?
JM: NHRA has been a critical partner in this entire project. Without the involvement of Bruce Bachelder and Danny Gracia, this would not have happened.
CN: Initial rumors pointed to two engines, the 5.3-liter supercharged engine shown here and the naturally aspirated 427. It looks like a larger supercharger package is also going to be available, one featuring a 4.0-liter Whipple that will allow the Camaro to compete in Super Stock. Can you tell us more about that engine combination?
JM: Two of our Chevrolet Performance powertrain experts, Russ O’Blenes and Robin Wright, have been planning engine strategies for COPO Camaro since the project’s rebirth. From the beginning, they targeted the LS architecture in several variations. We had always planned on both a naturally aspirated and supercharged option for the car. Russ and Robin have hours on the dyno developing the naturally aspirated 427 (think of it as a factory, race version of the LS7) and then a big bore/small stroke 327-inch LSX block based engine with two different supercharger options. Our team feels that our customers will be well equipped to deliver wins in NHRA.
CN: In what we assume was legal AA/S trim, the COPO ran a 9.69 at 140-mph during testing in Bradenton. The current class record is a 9.37 at 144 held by a 2008 Mustang, while the class index is 10.90. It seems like the COPO is ready to rock and roll in AA/S but does it have any ET left in it to possibly reset the record?
JM: While we can’t confirm or deny the numbers, that was a historic day. It was the first time a factory-new COPO Camaro had gone down a drag strip in over 40 years. The Chevrolet Performance team that was in attendance that day was very pleased with the results. We weren’t out there to see if the car could set the national record – we’ll let our customers accomplish that. What this track day showed us was that the proof of concept COPO was a solid race car, the suspension was functional, and the drivetrain would hold up in a competition setting.
CN: It’s not uncommon to hear that the new Camaro is “just too heavy to race” competitively. With the Cobra Jets weighing in around 3200-lbs, can you comment on the race weight of the COPO?
JM: From the start, the COPO Camaro concept was developed with an eye toward the weight requirements necessary for our customers to be competitive in NHRA Stock Eliminator. As the proof of concept COPO was engineered, our team made sure to document where additional weight savings were coming from. In the end, the weight of the COPO will be correct for NHRA classification.
CN: We assume that the 5.3 and 7.0-liter mills have spent countless hours on the engine dyno, care to share any of the results with our readers?
JM: Yes, the Chevrolet Performance team at the Racing Powertrain (Wixom, MI) has spent many hours on the dyno developing these engine combinations.
CN: Okay, can you tell us more about the engine program? Are these engines going to be built in house like your LS9s or would a special outfit be needed to assemble these race motors?
JM: These engines are built in the same facility as our LS9, LS7, and dry-sump LS3 engine program. They were developed by the same talented team of engine engineers and technicians that support our NASCAR and ALMS racing programs. Without question, these are some of the most talented engine experts on the face of the planet. The COPO Camaro program has had a very high level of attention to detail brought to the engine program through the entire life of this project.
CN: Any chance that racers will see the COPO engines for sale as crate motors?
JM: Yes. In addition to NHRA rule requirements to make all of these components available to the consumer, we had planned to offer these as a crate engine. So, the end consumer will be able to choose components from the Chevrolet Performance parts catalog or buy the entire engine. In addition, we are going to be offering a Build Your Own COPO Engine program. This will run in conjunction with our Build Your Crate Engine program. The consumer will be able to hand assemble a COPO Camaro engine under the watchful eye of our GM Performance Build technicians. Very cool!
CN: How about the rear suspension and solid axle conversion? Will those see a Chevrolet Performance part number?
JM: Yes, per the NHRA rulebook, Chevrolet has to carry a part number on the straight axle. That’s a critical component to this car, and our engineering team spent months optimizing the rear suspension to make COPO Camaro work at the drag strip. For drag racing fans, this is a very exciting part – a straight axle assembly that will withstand the rigors of NHRA Stock Eliminator abuse. This is huge news!
CN: If and when GM decides to go ahead with the production of the COPO, will it be done in house or will the final assembly be farmed out to a third party? If it is the latter, do you already have a system in place for these to be built?
JM: The construction of the COPO Camaro production vehicles will be built at a facility under complete control of Chevrolet Performance. Critical in the success of this transition to production is the quality of each and every car. The incredible team at the Oshawa plant has played a big role in this; the Camaro team, anchored by Al Oppenheiser, has been involved in every step of this process; and the Chevrolet Performance team has lead the charge.
CN: How many COPO Camaros are being planned for production?
JM: We will go to production with 69 cars in 2012.
CN: Last but not least - and this is the question that is on everyone’s mind – when will we see the COPO Camaro out on the track and in the hands of racers? “Concept” be damned, we know the COPO is coming… how much longer do we have to sit by while Ford and Mopar have all of the fun?
JM: The car is expected to go into production in April. You should see COPO Camaro in competition this summer. We hope that our COPO Camaro consumers and racers enjoy the ownership experience of this exciting vehicle as much as the team has enjoyed bringing it to market.